Realizing the potential of 'My Brother’s Keeper'

President Obama recently announced the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, a partnership between the White House, business, government, and philanthropy that aims to build ladders of opportunity to promote success among boys and young men of color. In designing the initiative, the coalition has laid a strong foundation by incorporating some key lessons from research, but it can build on this base by integrating some additional insights from research to further raise the chances that the initiative has a lasting impact.

The initiative takes a prevention approach rather than a “treatment” approach. We know that well-designed and well-implemented prevention programs keep boys and young men of color from experiencing bad outcomes in the first place—in such areas as education, safety, crime, and health. Rather than intervening later on, the initiative is focused on an upfront investment of resources. This type of prevention approach not only promotes better outcomes for boys and young men of color, but it also can be cost-effective in the long run and have positive spillovers for the rest of society.

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While the initiative focuses on implementing what we know works to improve the life chances of boys and young men of color, it also proposes to continue to explore and test innovative new strategies. There are many gaps in knowledge about whether and how human services and community-based programs for different populations work. This dual approach of encouraging the use of evidence-based practices while seeking out fresh knowledge puts resources to work in ways that are most likely to help boys and young men of color succeed as adults.

As the coalition begins the work of specifying the different features of the initiative, it should consider incorporating additional lessons from research.

Implementation matters; evidence-based approaches only have impact if implemented well.  For example, mentoring programs are more effective when programs follow a structured screening process and provide initial training and ongoing support to the mentors. While using evidence-based approaches raises the chances that an initiative will be successful, we know that human services and community-based programs are more effective when accompanied by implementation and capacity supports. Investing the time and resources upfront to help plan, manage and sustain this work will strengthen the programs and services provided and increase the probability of their success in preventing adverse outcomes for boys and men of color.

One-size does not fit all; boys and men of color are a diverse group with different investment opportunities. They come from different racial and ethnic groups; they are immigrants and non-immigrants; they come from rural and urban areas and outcomes differ widely within and across these groups. For example, although both Latinos and African-American children have lower levels of educational attainment than their non-minority counterparts, African-American students are at much greater risk of being held back a grade and being suspended from school. Thus, to be effective it is important that the initiative help communities effectively tailor strategies to meet the needs of various sub groups.

Don’t forget about the family; boys and men of color spend their first 1,000 days primarily with their family, and as they develop, the family continues to be the primary source of learning, security, and investment. We know for example that raising mothers’ education leads to better caregiving, which in turn results in better health practices, home literacy, and other behaviors that foster positive outcomes for children and youth. Programs and services that empower families to improve their investments in boys and young men of color can increase their life chances.

The White House has mobilized an impressive coalition to address a critical national challenge, and used the power of research evidence to begin to structure the initiative. By drawing additional lessons from the existing research base, the initiative can further bolster its chance to build strong and lasting ladders of opportunity and success for boys and young men of color. This will help ensure that My Brother’s Keeper initiative realizes its potential as a game changer.  

Kilburn is a senior economist, Schultz a senior policy analyst and Davis a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.